The “Stress Reaction Index”?


Credit: Stressed worker image via Shutterstock

Life has been stressful lately. No, not the standard “my latte is not hot enough” kind of stress. We’re talking about a perfect storm of multiple personal life events, family issues and work events. The standard “wake-up-at-3AM-panicked-about-whatever” symptom would be a welcome diversion right now. Apparently, avoidance is a stress-coping mechanism of mine, because rather than dealing with the 900 things that would likely help alleviate my stressful situations, I’m writing this post.

That said, I pride myself on being the guy who is calm under fire. One of my previous managers even put that on my review one year. I’m still very proud of that assessment. Of course, I’m ex-Army, so while it resonates, I’m not really sure what that means in a workplace setting.  But in the course of hiring, promoting, firing people, and the day-to-day situations and crisis that I’ve encountered in the workplace, the ability to predictively measure someone’s actual empirical reaction to high-stress situations would be pretty useful.

I’ve found a ton of online assessments for measuring stress. I was the CIO for CPP for 5 years, and helped them electronically publish the MBTI. That tool has a variety of reports that help identify stress-coping techniques at an individual personality profile level. There are others too, and that’s all great…. BUT…..

Not really the point. What I’m looking for is a way to measure how someone will react when the proverbial sh%&^t hits the fan. I don’t particularly care how they cope, what the warning signs are, or how they alleviate the stress. Yes, crass on my part. That stuff is valuable for the individual to stay sane, but as the employer, I want to know what to expect in advance.

This has to be out there somewhere, right?

It seems the world has historically described stress in 3 evolving ways:

The Response-based model: “Stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” (Selye, 1974)

The Stimulus-based model: Stress involves “…events whose advent…requires a significant change in the ongoing life pattern of the individual.” (Holmes & Rahe, 1967)

And the Transactional model: Stress involves the “judgment that environmental or internal demands tax or exceed the individual’s resources for managing them.” (Holroyd & Lazarus, 1982)

I guess we’re getting better over time, the 1974 definition seems pretty worthless to me. So if we go with the Stimulus and Transactional models, we should be able to measure that, right? The military has a pretty simple system: they create the stimulus, and a situation that clearly exceed the individual resources, and then watch and see what happens. On the backside, the NIH and VA have very effective assessments for evaluating PTSD. From my experience in the Army, I know that individual reactions to a high stress situation can be modified via exposure, repetition and evaluation. You can argue that the military is uniquely situated to easily do this, but I am not sure I agree. I just don’t think the private sector has systematically thought this way re: hiring and performance evaluations.  The most thought I’ve seen put into this is the use of panel interviews and situational questions or scenarios that are intentionally uncomfortable for the candidate. Not exactly scientific, or predictive.

I think most people have seen this (lack of) assessment in action. There’s the manager who is always the last to know about a crisis. Why? Because every one knows he/she is an emotional wreck and will make the situation worse.  The forest-and-trees guy who obsesses over the minutia and ignores the underlying problem. The person who completely shuts down and checks out entirely until everything has blown over. And my personal favorite: the person who is notably absent during the crisis, but afterwards (Monday morning) has abundant wisdom (from their armchair).

Clearly it’s debatable if the information in the assessment-to-be would be a good tool for hiring. Certainly there are certain roles in any organization where performance under fire is a critical component of performance. I sure could have used it recently. At the very least, I would consider an assessment of this sort to be an essential tool to help in developing my staff’s skills. Just as in the Army, the person may not be the best in crisis, but if I know that up front, I can keep them out of the foxhole at the front line.

So my goal is 1) to solicit input: When the storm is coming, how do you predict who should be in the war room, and who should really just ‘work from home’ for a while? Do you know ahead of time, or not until it’s too late and you have a quivering mass sniffling in the corner?

And 2) how can we systematize/assess/evaluate this on a proactive way to our shared benefit – and help people develop the skills they need to be more effective?

Comments? Let me know thoughts, I’ll be reading them all ‘round about 3AM PST tonight….

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